In Response to the Cult of Remote Working

Remote working and working from home have become hallowed totems of the progressive side of IT business in recent years. Advocacy for the benefits of working from home and collaborative technologies that bring distributed teams together is widespread on weather vane forums of IT culture like Hacker News. Even in the more formal business press, there’s been a steady drumbeat of analysis with an optimistic view to the possible benefits.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been a beneficiary. I’ve been self-employed since I was twenty-two, and have spent a good chunk of my adult life working remotely, in coffee shops and coworking spaces, as well as living overseas and working wherever there.

Furthermore, the remote work thesis has dragged onto the stage with it several related insights that unquestionably needed exposure to a wider audience. For some time now, we’ve been highlighting the failings of old-fashioned, Twentieth Century “butts in chairs” presumptions of corporate America, namely that if you’re sat in your cube like a good Organisation (Wo)Man, you must be working productively. It’s good to see more mainstream recognition of the fact that people work differently and have different biological and psychological rhythms, from which it follows that the standard 9-to-5 schedule is not the most productive one for a lot of people (I make a crappy 9-to-5er, and so do many developers I know). And more generally, I welcome the pressure to take a more results-based view of productivity that privileges what people are actually getting done over how and when they do it.

Multi-tasking mother at homeStill, remote work has become something of a religion now among Millennial professionals in the “digital realm”, and it’s reached a fever pitch. I’ve heard from multiple people and in various forms the claim that modern tech companies, or software companies, simply do not need offices. It’s trotted out as an incontrovertible fact that trumps all business and people-specific considerations. Among certain segments of affluent Millennial professionals, it’s become a cult.

The world wants for a more sober and equanimous analysis, which, if undertaken, leads to more ambivalent conclusions.

Business model and knowledge

I think the main thing missing from the generic focus of lyrical encomiums to working at home is an awareness of how knowledge is shared and transmitted. That’s going to be strongly tied up in the nature of the business model and its specific workflows.

Yes, remote can work well in a small team of professionals who work mostly independently on compartmentalised work items. That suitably describes a lot of web startups. Good web developers, for example, be relied upon to maintain and expand their skill set independently of the concrete work they do. Essentially, they’re freelancers with a W-2 paycheck.

That’s not how a lot of business in the “knowledge economy” works, though. I got my career start at a relatively small-town Internet service provider, rapidly rising from a part-time student tech support employee to the principal system administrator in 1-2 years’ time. I came into the first role at age 18, having good raw technical skills from a childhood of Linux and C programming but with no real-world work background, business experience, or knowledge of industrial equipment. I was an eager knowledge sink and learned a great deal from older colleagues who mentored me. A lot of the gaps that needed filling weren’t so much technical skills as applied experience with how to implement technology to serve real-world business cases, and the trade-offs involved in doing so. I had no exposure to business growing up; I had never dealt with the complexities of real customers or contracts, knew nothing about how to price services or the true cost structure of a company, CAPEX vs. OPEX, etc. Like all over-eager, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18 year-old beavers, I had to be slowly disabused of an overwhelming tendency to recommend “build” vs. “buy”. Furthermore, I forged strong relationships with the interesting and eclectic crowd that this employer attracted. These remain my strongest social connections more than a decade later, and have been professionally as well as personally important. And when I left that ISP role at age 20, I was able to successfully leverage the broad experience and parlay it into a rather meteoric rise in professional status at a big-boy corporate job in Atlanta. This process made me into the professional I became.

The small-town ISP wasn’t lucrative. The bargain with employees was, for the most part: we pay low student-type wages, you learn more, and more quickly, than almost anywhere else you could conceivably work. It was a fair trade, and one that exists in a lot of places in the economy. The average 19 year-old, even of the precocious sort, doesn’t get to administer BGP routers or help deploy SANs. This was all socially transmitted knowledge, the organic outcome of shared culture built around the proverbial water cooler.

I saw where the cables ran and how real networks looked. Even in our Cloudy world, where these links are increasingly software-defined, it’s important to see and touch. I paid attention to how my coworkers worked, their mannerisms, how they reacted to difficult situations, and I copied and adapted many of their habits. I came to have similar instincts. In ruminating upon how I learned, I learned how to better teach and train others. I learned to bring a business outlook to bear on many issues as well as a technical one. I learned a lot about common organisational anti-patterns and what not to do. These are the things that made me valuable to future employers as much as any technical skill set I possessed.

I have trouble imagining how this would have worked if I were sat at my home computer, given a bunch of logins to network equipment and told to inquire on something like Slack if I had any questions. I was there in person to pester — and occasionally frustrate — my senior coworkers, and, with time, to teach and mentor my junior team members, and it made all the difference.

Techno-utopian fantasies and the human factor

For the last decade or so, I have been doing SIP and Kamailio consulting for VoIP service providers. VoIP is a weird intersection of the technology universe where telephony meets computers, two worlds that don’t traditionally converse. The business opportunity as a consultant comes largely from the fact that the phone guys traditionally don’t know much about IP packet networks, data and IT, while the IT guys don’t know much about phones.

And although that world is slowly changing, VoIP providers still have to talk to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), AKA the traditional telephone network. To be a useful vendor to VoIP service providers, you need some rather esoteric domain knowledge about arcane PSTN concepts that go back to 1980s technology. The PSTN is highly regulated, and you need to understand that regulatory environment to be able to understand customer needs as they relate to billing and interconnection.

That sort of thing is called domain knowledge, and exotic domain knowledge is the essence of most commercially viable consulting endeavours. VoIP is an uncommon skill set; there’s a very limited number of people out there who possess it, and you can’t just hire off the street for it. Even when you do find someone with that expertise, it’s almost certainly going to be in an allied, but different subspecialisation of the field. In addition to imparting niche technical skills, you’re going to have to teach them about the industry and the customers.

How do you do that over Slack and Hangouts? Well, I thought I could. I have hired four or five people during the lifetime of my business, all remote, reasoning — rather contemporarily — that working at home is a nice benefit to provide and technology can bridge the gaps.

It can’t. It didn’t work. And I specialise in telecommunications. When it comes down to it, phone, e-mail, chat and video are all directed communications graphs. Any communication is particularised, deliberate, and has a certain cost, even if it’s relatively low. Chat inherently privileges the short sound-bite and the “quick takeaway”, the favoured refuge of people too busy to think. Few people are going to type as much as they speak. And any commitment to do so leads to self-consciousness about using “work time” for that purpose in ways that hallway chats do not.

Of course, it’s not that all “meatspace” workplaces are all socially robust, thriving marketplaces of ideas and nexuses of collegiate friendship. I’ve worked in plenty of corporate environments where people come in, sit in their cube, type things, have a meeting, and go home. But still, real-world tech work isn’t always about churning out code in a generic, undifferentiated way. Often, it can’t be divorced from deep knowledge of the business domain in which you participate. It’s very important that your employees come to have social knowledge of that business domain, and the inefficiencies of remote communication are a surprisingly strong headwind.’

What’s more, any honest entrepreneur can tell you that convincing people to work for you and applying their work in an economically useful way is actually an incredibly hard problem. It’s often harder than getting customers to pay for the product, which is usually the more central preoccupation of business lore. Knowing your (expensive, indispensable) people, what makes them tick, keeping them happy, and maintaining a finger on their pulse is more art than science. Accenture and Deloitte may think of people as “Linux resources”, but in the world of small business, this is your crew, your livelihood, your life-blood. Emojis don’t promote that kind of deep connection to so-called “human capital”.

I think this is all a special case of a more general fallacy that pervades the technocratic bent of Valley thinking: the conceit that technology can solve broad classes of timeless management problems that are essentially human. A lot of the sales pitch behind ticketing systems, project management systems, CRMs, Slack, Basecamp, etc. has the meta-message that if you just had the right tools, you can bridge all work and process gaps, or somehow guarantee or force productivity, or provide browser-based surrogates for the psychological feedback of solidarity and shared purpose. You can’t. Not even with uncompressed 8K video and a million dollar telepresence system. Ask the airlines if anyone still travels to have important business meetings. There are certain categories of problems for which more technology is not the answer.

traffic jams in the city, road, rush hourA related pitfall of technocratic utopianism—that it is in tools and technology that our salvation lies—is that it often leads to solving the wrong problems. For example, metro Atlanta is practically a poster-child for the sprawling suburban dystopia of which I have treated much. It’s an accepted fact that no matter where you locate your company office in Atlanta, you’re dooming a high percentage of your work force to a potentially soul-crushing commute across Atlanta’s unconscienable freeway distances. It’s not news that length of commute correlates inversely with health and happiness. So, what’s our response? Instead of taking a fresh critical look at our crappy infrastructure, lack of public transport, and automobile-centric, sprawling built environment, we flush the positive value of the enterprise of “going to work” out with the bathwater of “the hated car commute”. But they are not one and the same.

Personality and social needs

As I wrote in another post from 2015:

Oh, [working at home] seemed incredibly cool when it was the forbidden fruit. Back when I had to make a bleary-eyed, tedious commute to some cube at 9 AM and put cover sheets on TPS reports or listen to coworkers’ incessant sports talk, working from home was a rare and coveted treat, the stuff of dreams. Imagine, saving the world in my bathrobe, all the fine things in life at my fingertips: refrigerator, snacks, couch, coffee table, a breather on the balcony!

Working from home

However, after I went out into the reputedly exciting world of self-employment around this time eight years ago, the novelty wore off after a week or two and the bleak reality set in. I’m an extrovert and I don’t handle extended loneliness well. Not leaving the house was depressing and unhealthy. It was not conducive to a routine; I quickly developed a chronically dispirited mood, exquisitely strange and shifty sleep rhythms (even by my nocturnal standards), and eating habits worthy of a bulletin from the Surgeon General.

Oddly enough, this was unrelated to whether I lived alone, with a long-term romantic partner, or family and friends. Certainly, I can’t work at home these days in a small apartment with three young kids, but for most of the eight-year history of this business, I lived alone or with an adult partner no less busy than I. Also, I spent a few years living overseas. In all cases, I was dysfunctional working at home–or whatever place served the role of home–and I hated it. To stay sane and produce consistently, I need some kind of routine, a commute, movement and walking, coworkers, water-cooler talk, lunch meetings, and the overall psychological compartmentalisation that comes with a distinctive work-space. If I don’t have that, things go downhill fast.

Working remotely from one’s residence certainly doesn’t have universal appeal.

An understated but important subtext of the remote work discussion in IT culture is a celebration of the stereotypical techie introvert, who resents being subjected to mandatory social participation in the typical corporate workplace shuffle. In a world where such people feel — to some extent legitimately — crowded out by extroverts, this is fair play.

But not all extroverts are facile schmoozers and gold chain-wearing womanisers from Sales. A question that seems to get drowned out in ecstatic praise of remote working is about the psychological foundations of motivation. Productive relatedness to one’s fellow man is a universal psychological need. We all need, in one measure or another, to be seen, admired, included, valued, recognised and praised for our distinctive contributions to larger endeavours. There’s a lot of unexplored territory around how a chronic state of remote work bends this dynamic and affects long-term job satisfaction. I am not ashamed to admit my investment in my work and my professional identity generates social needs that languishing at home does not fulfill.

Lonely senior man looking at the windowThere are other wrinkles in the fabric of human psychology, the blunt and unvarnished truths we’re all supposed to learn as we get older, wiser and more savvy to the fragility, equivocality and capriciousness of the human condition. By way of illustration, one possible wrinkle is the role of workplace as refuge, however unconsciously sought, from a difficult and stressful home life, for men and women alike.

We’ve heard a lot lately from people who say, “Now that I work at home and don’t have to commute, I get so much more done in less time while still staying on top of chores and spending more time with my kids! My life is so much better!” Well, good. Everyone should have your idyllic life and happy marriage. Everyone should be young, affluent and healthy instead of old, bankrupt and ill, and they should live in a village full of warm, loving friends and relatives, instead of alone and forgotten. Home life should be easy and cheerful instead of overwhelming and demoralising. Who wouldn’t rather live in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, where addiction, abuse and depression are the unintelligible words of a foreign language? Given the choice, instead of dealing with Mom’s methadone withdrawals, bailing their cousin out of jail again, going in for an MRI of a meningioma, or staring at a foreclosure sale notice, I think anyone would sure as hell prefer to crush some P90X, bro down on some Scrum board stories in Awesome.js, and make a fat 401(k) contribution because it’s payday. All without leaving the house! So much winning.

But my life experience suggests there is a not-insignificant number of people for whom escape to a workplace and a single-minded focus on work is what they need to stay sane. It may be all they have. Even for a lot of the affluent professional middle class, as often as not the best case of ordinary American existence is that it’s bleak and offers little to come home to and little to go out to. Or it can be much worse. That’s real life.

Rather generally

Well, that took a turn into a peculiar niche area, you might say. But we’ve got to think about stuff like that before we declare the workplace, as we classically understand the concept, to be unequivocally obsolete. We overzealously declared the pedestrian civic realm and the public plaza to be obsolete half a century ago, and look what happened?

There’s probably a reason why we have evolved an entire cultural vernacular not just around the specific places and facilities in which we work, but the idea of being “at work” and not “at home”. Being “at work” isn’t just about where you are located right now—it can also have a more cosmological dimension. It’s a state of affairs. It’s a punctuation mark to many would-be run-on sentences, far from all pleasant.

As a software engineer, I’m the first to say that not everything need be expensive and physical. However, humanity cannot be wholly separated from its physicality and “uploaded” to The Cloud. Many of the physical structures and in-person rituals we have built are a necessary manifestation—indeed, a mindful assertion—of inspired productive communion in our short time on Earth. It may be that a place of work—a work-place—is one of them.